For the first time in years, there's a push for new anti-drug programs under the D.A.R.E. New Jersey banner in the Garden State's schools.

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The program's sustainability in New Jersey was threatened in a messy legal battle with the national Drug Abuse Resistance Education program starting in 2012, when the local organization refused to adopt a new curriculum it argued was unproven at reaching younger students.

It lost that fight in 2015, and was ordered to pay the national group more than half a million dollars, reported at the time. A court agreed D.A.R.E New Jersey was violating its franchise agreement by operating under the D.A.R.E. name without using the national curriculum.

Since then, it's been barred from teaching the older program, which had been adopted by the state Department of Education, but which national D.A.R.E. officials argued was "antiquated." Another group, Law Enforcement Against Drugs, stepped in to teach the old program under its own name.

And police departments have struggled since the Great Recession to make officers available for such programs. But according to Ocean County Undersheriff Rick Bergquist, who heads a new group devoted to supporting D.A.R.E. in New Jersey, that's starting to change.

"D.A.R.E. America has been covering our costs here in New Jersey (since 2015)," said Bergquist, director of Advocacy for Drug Education in New Jersey. His group will soon begin a D.A.R.E. fundraising push.

Bergquist estimated about 125 New Jersey school districts have a D.A.R.E presence.

Through the program, specially trained officers visit classrooms with a curriculum designed to teach children how to live lives free of drugs and violence.

"All you need to do is look at the opiate problem we have here in New Jersey and understand that our best opportunity is to reach these kids early and repeatedly," Bergquist said. "There's just so many temptations and it's just so easy for a kid to go off the path."

Drug overdoses claimed the lives of nearly 1,600 people in New Jersey in 2015, and while 2016 overdose numbers are not yet finalized, state officials expect the count to be significantly higher.

"Our goal is touch as many kids as possible in the state of New Jersey with the D.A.R.E. program," Bergquist added.

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